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Common Tread

Are you prepared for a traffic stop?

Sep 26, 2018

If you haven’t already been pulled over for a roadside chat with the constabulary, keep riding. Your day will probably come.

A little preparedness can go a long way towards getting you both on your way without complications. You might be able to avoid the stop entirely with a little work. Keep in mind, we're talking routine traffic stops and minor offenses here, so if there are helicopters involved, you're on your own. Lemmy has covered beating traffic tickets before, but let's focus on what comes before you get stopped. In fact, everything here can be taken care of before you even put your stand up for your next ride.

A quick COA: this article is not intended as a source of legal advice. If you need legal counsel, consult a professional, not Common Tread.

What do I need to legally ride my motorcycle?

Let’s start with the basics. “License and registration.” You’ll be asked to present those two, for sure, so keep them current and actually on your person or on your bike. When was the last time you looked at them? Go check. My dual-sport's registration was expired, and I found the new replacement behind my desk. Not helpful in a traffic stop. Keep your papers in a waterproof plastic bag, or laminate them, because a handful of pulp isn't helpful, either. 

Knowing where your stuff is helps you communicate its location to an officer. Scrambling through pockets and luggage as soon as you pull over makes police nervous. Instead, you can stay calm and let them know what’s where. “My license is in my pocket, and I keep my registration in the tank bag. Should I get you my license first?” 

If your state requires inspections, that’s typically just a sticker that goes on the fork. Not much to go wrong there. Also, some states require you to show proof of insurance. That might require carrying a physical document, or you may be allowed to show your coverage on a smartphone. (Check your state laws, and make sure you know how to access your proof of insurance before you’re under pressure to present it. Some insurance companies offer apps to help with this. Nobody wants to watch you swipe through pictures on your phone.) When you get any new paperwork for your bike, check it against your serial number and your other documents. The DMV and insurance companies make errors. Guess how I know.

If you’re riding a highly modified bike, especially with a swapped frame or non-factory numbers, that might raise some red flags with law enforcement. For example, I know a guy whose Harley has legitimate restamped cases. Some regions really watch that stuff, so he keeps a photocopy of the title in his handlebars. That doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it’s a great start towards demonstrating that his bike is on the level.

My motorcycle doesn’t have a place to store papers. What should I do?

Dual-sports, customs, and sport bikes can be very short on space. If you really can’t find a spot, you can always carry stuff in your jacket pockets or wallet. Some riders tuck papers away under the back protector. A small tail or tank bag can also work. Other solutions, like Biltwell’s stash tube or DrySpec’s lockable box are also available.

Do I really need to carry all these documents with me everywhere?

If you’re missing something, the officer will ask you some questions and run a check on your information. That takes time, and neither of you want to be there any longer than absolutely necessary. It’s true that police cruisers can pull up lots of information on your vehicle before the officer steps out of the car, but don’t count on it. Fearless Editor Lance was once pulled over because his Ohio plate didn’t show up in the New Jersey plate scanner's database. Producing a paper registration cleared that right up, and Lance went on his way. Without it, that could have been a painfully long stop.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Spurgeon ain't misbehavin', but his bike and papers are ready if the officer wanted to take a look. Brett Walling photo.

Is anything so obviously wrong with your motorcycle, that you’d pull you over too?

If something’s clearly not right on your bike, don’t be surprised when an officer puts the party lights on. Even if all you get is a warning, why give the police something to talk about? Changing a bulb before that tri-state trip is a lot faster and cheaper than a ticket. It also pays to know where you’re going, legally speaking. Helmet and eye protection laws can vary between states, along with loads of other things. Find out before you ride, or let the police explain it to you for a fee.

Having no plate will get you pulled over in a hurry. For big singles and twins, grab some nylock nuts or blue Loc-Tite for the license plate bolts. I once bought an old thumper from its original owner, who told me a cautionary tale. He left the dealership on his brand new bike, made it halfway across town, and suddenly got pulled over for riding without a plate. The vibrations shook it loose, and despite their best efforts, they couldn't find his tag. The replacement was secured with better hardware, and he rode for decades without a problem. If you're heading off-road, it's pretty easy to lose a plate out there too. Make sure you leave the trail with plate hanger intact.

Do I know what to do if I get pulled over?

Uh oh. Cherries and berries just came on behind you, and it’s time to start looking for a spot to pull over. (A small percentage of motorcyclists decide not to pull over, but this article will probably not be of much value to them.) You need to get over promptly, but you also need to choose a safe spot for you and the officer to communicate. Both riders and police are at risk when pulled over, so choose a wide, well-lit location if possible. Just because your motorcycle fits comfortably doesn’t mean a Police Interceptor will. Keep your helmet on, engine off, and flashers activated if possible. You’re about to have an interaction with the officer. Keep calm. If you don't know why he's pulling you over, it's probably not that bad.

Having your act together with your bike and paperwork is a great start to the encounter. Don’t throw it away with hotheadedness or unnecessary aggression. It’s on the officer to uphold the other end of the social contract, but know that, largely, your actions either advance motorcycling or ruin it for others.

If you take anything away from this article, I’d like you to do two things. First, take a few minutes to make sure you actually have all the right stuff when you ride. It’ll make life easier later. And second, be respectful, and decent, and a normal human being, if possible. Ride like our sport depends on it.